BY TAMAR NEUMANN: A Christopher Durang play is never dull. Even when he uses Chekhov as a jumping-off point, as he does with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, he manages to keep the story entertaining. At first you might think, “Oh, just what I needed—another story about depressed Russians,” but it turns out Durang’s version is much more fun, and, in many ways, more self-aware.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is about two people who got stuck. They live in the country and they were never able to leave. In opposition to that, their sister is a big movie star (in most respects). The play begins with Masha (the movie star) coming home and bringing her boy toy, Spike, along with her. There are moments of jealousy and rage, but mostly there are moments of hilarity and confusion. But the play is about more than just a family dynamic of who got to fulfill their dreams and who didn’t. It’s also about the promise of youth and the regrets of age. While it’s not saying every person has regrets about his/her life, it does make you consider the question, “what did you imagine your life would be like and what did it actually turn out to be?” How are those two versions different?
The Guthrie Theater’s version of this play weaves in the serious with the funny so subtly that it’s not until later that you process the deep questions the play was actually asking. Each member of the cast skillfully portrays his/her character in a sincere, yet over the top manner. That may seem incongruous, but it’s what makes this production work. The casts’ over-exaggeration lightens the mood of the play and keeps you laughing, while their ability to play the important moments seriously helps you to think about the philosophical issues this play dances around.
Spike, played by Joshua James Campbell, and Nina, played by Ali Rose Dachis, are perfectly naïve and innocent in contrast to the older characters of the play. Both Campbell and Dachis embrace their roles in a manner that is both believable and unbelievable. No one can be quite that excited and naïve about life, right? Campbell, in particular, does an excellent of job of (to paraphrase one of his own lines in the play) “flaunting it because he has it.” He keeps the audience laughing and somehow manages to embody the freshness of youth the play is trying to encapsulate in his character.
This review would not be complete without mentioning Cassandra, played by Isabell Monk O’Connor, who is a prophetess/cleaning lady. Just reading that last line should make you stop and consider the screwball comedy of this play. She gets visions throughout the play that include dire warnings for Vanya and Sonia, some of which might actually come true. Monk O’Connor appears to be having a great time on stage which makes her performance even more enjoyable to watch. Life would never be dull with a cleaning lady who continually gives out grim forebodings for her employer.
So, as summer winds down and you start to build your Fringe calendar of shows, consider adding Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike to the list. While it’s not a Fringe show, it’s certainly worth a visit to the Guthrie Theater on one of your last remaining warm summer nights.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang. July 19-August 31, 2014. The Guthrie Theatre, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. Tickets: $35-$70; purchase tickets at guthrietheater.org or 612.377.2224.